The Mediterranean may just be the most exciting cruise route in the world: You get to see a variety of countries in one sailing, and the most interesting places in the region tend to be either right on the water, or fairly accessible from the sea. Athens, Istanbul, Venice Rome, Florence, Nice, Barcelona … these are the places that travel dreams are made of for most American travelers.
So how do you choose between the choices? Confession: The truth is, one is not better than the other. They are equally amazing. Trying to pick a winner is like trying to choose between apples and oranges. Apples are crunchier; oranges are juicier. But does that make one a better choice?
Read on for our assessment, designed to help you determine which one you would like to try first, but not (admittedly) which route is empirically better:
Both Eastern and Western Mediterranean routes have interesting and important sights to see. In the Eastern Mediterranean, which is dominated by Greece and Turkey, the most important sites tend toward historic ruins of the ancient and crumbling variety. The Parthenon in Athens is as striking as you’ve imagined, and peers out over the metropolis in a very grand way; Ephesus, in the port of Kusadasi, is an amazing look back in time.
In the Western Mediterranean, which is dominated by Spain, France, and Italy, you’re more likely to see museums, such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Picasso museum in Barcelona. This is an oversimplification of course, and both areas have significant sites with religious connections, too, most notably the Vatican in Rome, the Palais des Papes in Avignon, and the Gaudí-designed Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.
The Vatican in Rome (left) and the Parthenon in Athens (right) are two of the biggest draws on Mediterranean cruises. - Photo by sborisov and Lambros Kazan / Thinkstock
Our Pick: Draw.
Both routes excel in terms of culture. Your preference will depend on which cultures you are more interested in.
Again, the food in both parts of the Mediterranean is impressive. In the Eastern Mediterranean countries of Greece and Turkey, you’ll find gyros and kebabs, grilled seafood, bright salads, pita served with dips, and everything is flavorful but also fresh and often healthy. One caveat: The coffee in both countries is an acquired taste. Turkish coffee is thick, with sediment at the bottom; the Greeks love their frappes … which are made with instant coffee granules.
In the Western Mediterranean – namely France, Spain, and Italy – the food tends to be richer. In Spain, you’ll want to try tapas, tortilla, and paella, and to start the day with churros and hot chocolate; in France, look for croissants, bouillabaisse, daube, tapenades, and vegetable laden tarts, as well as the classic Niçoise salad with tuna and the sandwich version, the pan bagnat. Italy’s cuisine is more diverse along the coastline, but you can’t go wrong with house-made charcuterie, local cheeses, fresh pasta, and seafood plucked right from the Med. And of course, gelato … you mustn’t forget the gelato, though in Southern Italy we love an icy almond or lemon granita (a slushy) on a hot day, and a ricotta-based pastry on a cooler one.
Make sure you try the tapas in Barcelona (left) and the gyros in Greece (right). - Photos by mateuszgzik / Thinkstock and Joshua Resnick / Shuttestock
This is a strength of these routes, both of which would beat out many other itineraries in other parts of the world.
Because the cities you sail out of have to have large airports, it’s no surprise that these cruises start and end in the most iconic spots on the sailing. On the Eastern route, Athens and Istanbul are the most popular, and both are worth adding a couple of pre- or post-cruise days to make sure you get to see them in depth. In Athens, you can see the Parthenon and wander the Plaka district before checking out the archeology museum; in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Sultan’s Palace are worth more time then you usually get on a port day.
On the Western route, Barcelona and Rome are the most common arrival and departure ports. And while Rome is a distance from the port in Civitavecchia, both cities are worth spending additional time to explore. Barcelona has several amazing art museums, a smattering of cool Gaudí sites, and Las Ramblas and the Gothic Quarter to explore. For sailings that offer a mix of Eastern and Western ports, Venice is a frequent embarkation or disembarkation choice, and is equally rich in culture and history.
Barcelona and Istanbul are easily accessible from their cruise ports. - Photos by Mapics / Thinkstock and Vitaly Titov / Shutterstock
Our Pick: Draw.
These are amazing, large cities that draw travelers from far and wide for their culture and excitement. Both Eastern and Western Mediterranean sailings have fabulous embarkation ports.
While you may be choosing your ship based on the onboard amenities, it’s important to see how many “at sea” days you’ll have, and even more important when you are traveling with little ones. Those kids’ clubs and water parks may sound like fun, but the reality may be that you are sightseeing off of the ship all day every day in some ports if you sign up for full-day excursions and there are no sea days. Even for adults, long days of sightseeing after a day of international travel can make you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation.
Our advice: Look carefully at the length of time of your shore excursion choices and, if you’re packing in too much sightseeing, consider working a quieter beach or shopping-and-lunch day into the mix, for yourselves as well as any older kids in your party. If your children are very young, you may want to pick a day or two to stay on the ship, especially if you have visited the destination in the past. You’ll likely have run of the best spots onboard — including the pool, spa, and gym — and get to do whatever you want without dealing with lines or crowding.
Both itineraries have beaches, but Eastern ports like Mykonos (right) are more scenic than Barcelona (left). - Photos by Dri Mi and Brent Wong / Thinkstock
Our Pick: Eastern.
There are more ports, including Santorini and Mykonos, that can be used as beach days without feeling like you are missing out on seeing important sites.
While these are idyllic parts of the world, there are a few ports that are hard to reach from the coast. In the Western Med, Rome jumps out – it can be almost two hours each way in the worst rush hour traffic, which (when you factor in a long day of sightseeing) can be exhausting. Florence, too, can be a long drive in traffic. In the Eastern Med, Athens isn’t on the water, but it is a 30-minute drive from Piraeus.
Our Pick: Eastern.
The long distances from port to Florence and Rome on Western Med cruises is a real downside.
Our Pick: Tie!
We can’t, or won’t, pick a winner on this one. If we had the time, our perfect cruise would be an Eastern Mediterranean sailing followed by a Western one. They are both amazing experiences that we think all cruisers should have on their bucket list. If you don’t have two full weeks for this particular vacation, but want to see it all, look for routes that combine the best – the heaviest hitters – of the two. This is especially good advice if you haven’t visited the area at all and want to use the trip as a “tasting” that will help you decide which areas you want to revisit on later vacations for a more in-depth exploration. Still, it’s important to remember, when it comes to choosing between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean routes, there really are no bad choices.